Thursday, July 17, 2008

Copy Editing: The WSJ Cuts Back

News yesterday that the Wall Street Journal is shutting down its Global Copy Desk near Princeton. While plans apparently call for at least some of those jobs to be effectively moved to New York and even overseas, a large number will simply fade away. As has happened at newspapers far and wide. In this case, it affects three of my friends. Had it not been for a quirk of timing, I might have been among them.

Last weekend a friend who used to report for our paper and now does so at a large newspaper near the Ohio River came up to me and said: It's scary working for a newspaper that really doesn't have any copy editing. There's no one behind you. No one checking your math. No one making sure your work makes any sense. No safety net. And sometimes, no matter how good you are, you're just going to fall.

This, of course, is simply higher productivity. When the rockets go up...

I know about how copy desks are cost centers and how there are legendary stories "touched" by nine editors. I know about urban legends, too. And I also know that a cost center is how you define it on your balance sheet. This section (say, Sports) has almost no advertising but that's OK, while that section (say, Culture) has almost no advertising and that's not OK, while that other section (say, Travel) has enough advertising to be profitable, but that may not be OK either. I'm not talking about pulling in readership, but Sports has become the largest section in terms of space in U.S. newspapers and has almost no ads and isn't viewed as a cost center.

Back-office sorting operations are a classic cost center; check processing, post office routing, telephone switching, etc. You figure out a way to handle most of the work (bar codes, whatever) mechanically and then you only need enough people to deal with rogue stuff (envelopes with handwriting so poor that a machine can't read them). I'm sure the people who did these back-office jobs felt that their individual skills were irreplaceable. So I may just be another self-interested civil servant in whining about cuts in copy editing. But it does seem that the sort of judgment calls one makes as an editor of any sort are less replaceable by technology or simply squeezing staff.

There are wonderful editing-check systems on the market that do so much more than spellcheck; if set up right, they can indicate that the phrase "on trial for murder" is libelous and that if you use the address "Springfield Township" you need to specify which of the five it is. These are things that copy editors keep in their hip pockets but many reporters and assigning editors barely think about. If used simply on the copy desk, they can make the copy editor's job easier and indeed more productive; if used from the start of the process, from the reporter on, they can probably make the process more efficient -- i.e., involving fewer people -- and they certainly can make stories more accurate.

But everything still involves a judgment call. A mail sorting system can route mail to 08057 and problems can be dealt with; an intelligent checking program can't say, "Whoops, the D.A. used the phrase 'on trial for murder' in a direct quote so it shouldn't be changed." Someone not only has to make that determination; someone has to be make sure that the determination actually is being made. What we call "copy" is a bunch of piecework components, each by definition put together uniquely. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows that you can't even tell what level of procedure was applied to any given story. ("It's deadline and I gotta move it and I'm sick of the damn story anyway!") It truly is herding cats, and if for some reason you needed to herd cats, it would become clear that it was not a back-office function.

But just as important is the loss -- and here I do sound like beating my own drum, but I will beat it anyway -- of the leaders of copy desks in newspapers as their departments are subsumed into others. As the columnist Susan Estrich said this week on an entirely different subject, "I understand there are more important things in life than having a show or a column or a fancy title. But it matters whose voice gets heard and whose doesn't. It matters who has a megaphone and who has the power to hire and fire and make the rules we all live by."

At the beginning of this decade many newspapers had given that megaphone to people whose job was to oversee, improve, and advocate for the copy editing of the news. People like Alex Cruden of the Detroit Free Press and Leslie Guevarra of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kay Jarvis of The Denver Post and Don Podesta of The Washington Post. And people like Christine Glancey of The Wall Street Journal. Part of the job is to draw up schedules and rule on the use of semicolons, but the job also exists to say: Hey, this is just as important as anything else we do. Not more important; if the place is being downsized, down we go as well. But as important.

Christine moved on to Hong Kong before this happened, but the rest either got the parachute or the sword, and while someone still draws up schedules, that seat at the front table was removed. It's still there for some people. Other papers never put it there. They had, of course, city editors and features editors and sports editors, and then there were those check-processors over in the corner.

Is the failure partly ours -- too many conversations about who and whom and not enough about how to cover fraud in the legislature; too many "your lead sounded fine, but I changed it to say 'He felt it strongly' instead of 'He felt it strong' anyway" and not enough "I really liked how you told this story"? Not from the copy desk leaders I know, but maybe that's what some others hear. Or maybe it is just economics. Whatever, forgive me for thinking that once again, this is just the story of a newspaper stabbing itself in the chest while saying, "I'm protecting the heart of the mission." Stabbing an artery can be just as effective as stabbing the heart itself.


Anonymous said...

I can't remember all the places I've said it online, so I'll say it once more here: The newsroom seems to becoming a more insular and isolated place where sloppy thinking by leadership or sloppy practices or sloppy writing can't be challenged anymore.

Bizzatchio said...

I'm cancelling my WSJ subscription. I just can't take the errors any more. They are on virtually every page. What a travesty the Journal became.